Cinematic universes, or shared universes, are not a new thing when it comes to the film world.
Dating back to 1931, the Universal Monster Universe featuring characters like Dracula, Frankenstein and The Wolf Man have all shown up in each other’s films to create a cohesive world that saw familiar characters interact with each other. Having these characters being portrayed by the same actor or actress adds that extra bit of connective tissue that can make “standalone” films blend together in a much bigger way.
While universes like the Universal Monsters, Planet of the Apes, or James Bond (to a certain degree), have been around for decades, the modern version of this trend is one that has some fans voicing their displeasure. There seems to be a line being drawn in the sand when it comes to incorporating multiple characters and films under one roof in terms of how fans are reacting, but why?
As a kid, I loved seeing my favorite superheroes working together in comics and TV shows. Spider-Man got to hang out with the X-Men, Batman and Superman had their own cartoon, and even the Power Rangers got to meet up with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Though the bulk of these crossovers I enjoyed came in the form of cartoons and TV shows, I always longed to see them together on the silver screen.
The late 90s/early 2000s ushered in a new age of comic book movies with films like X-Men, Blade, Spider-Man and the Dark Knight series, but something was missing. How come our heroes couldn’t meet up with each other? How come Batman didn’t have any help from the rest of the Justice League? Where are the other Avengers in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films?
One of the largest obstacles to overcome when crafting these cinematic universes has been the issue of film rights. When Marvel had to sell off a huge portion of their character film rights just to stay afloat, the prospect of ever seeing their champions together onscreen became nearly impossible. As Marvel had eventually been bought by Disney and gained financial stability, Kevin Feige had begun crafting what we now know and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. At the time, he only had a small roster of lesser characters to choose from, though subsequent deals to re-acquire characters like Blade, Ghost Rider and Daredevil would be made. After the Sony hacks back in 2015, word began spreading about their uncertain financial future and an agreement to allow Marvel include Spider-Man in their universe was eventually made, as Spider-Man: Homecoming was released earlier this year and he appeared in Captain America: Civil War.
2008 saw Iron Man make his debut with then-shamed actor Robert Downey Jr donning the iron suit. Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury would meet with Stark, where he referenced the Avengers Initiative in a post-credits scene for the film. The Incredible Hulk would follow just a month later after a post-credit scene saw Tony Stark conversing with Thunderbolt Ross, who would also appear later in Captain America: Civil War. Since that time, we’ve seen characters like Captain America, Thor, The Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man and Doctor Strange get their own standalone films, sequels, and teamups in this shared universe. Though these heroes have had their own origin stories and adventures, Feige & Co. have carefully developed (for the most part) an all-encompassing world that sees these characters, plots and storylines woven together in a way that tells an overall story across the current 16-film epic with no end in sight. In the coming years we’re getting new characters added in with Black Panther, Captain Marvel, and the huge number of characters set to appear in next year’s Avengers: Infinity War.
Moving on to the DC front, the Joel Schumacher Batman films had all but killed the World’s Greatest Detective until Christopher Nolan resurrected him with 2005’s Batman Begins. Gone were the days of neon lights, bat nipples and “cool” puns, as Christian Bale portrayed Batman in a grounded, gritty way. Though completing his trilogy, Nolan had no inclusion of any of the other heroes in the DC pantheon, nor did we see any connection from Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns in 2006. It wasn’t until 2013’s Man of Steel did we see seeds being planted for a cinematic universe consisting of the DC gods.
Three years would go by until we finally got the crossover we’d all been waiting for when Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice hit theatres and showed us glimpses of the upcoming Justice League. We finally got to see The Flash, Aquaman, Batman, Superman and Cyborg share screen time, though many fans didn’t quite get what they expected. We also got a Suicide Squad film that was not well-received at all, consisting of DC‘s villains in a weird teamup. Wonder Woman made her solo debut earlier this year and Aquaman is coming next year after Justice League hits this November.
Though DC is developing their own cinematic universe, it had been riddled in turmoil nearly from the start. They began having numerous issues with directors leaving projects, script rewrites, and speculation of Ben Affleck leaving his role of Batman. Most recently, director Matt Reeves made waves when he said that Batman would be a complete standalone film outside of the DCEU, only to recant his statements a day later. DC has also had an issue, in this writer’s opinion, of announcing too many upcoming projects before really having any concrete plan laid out. This week alone we had two different Joker films announced, with one reportedly recasting Jared Leto as the Clown Prince of Crime.
The state of disarray that seems to be taking place in the DCEU has led to rampant rumors and speculation of problems throughout the entire universe. It’s disheartening to have things announced only to have things being shifted, changed or scrapped. Why can’t DC just relax a bit and focus on making a few good films before going crazy and announcing so many other projects? The majority of their currently released films have been divisive at best and we really haven’t seen anything spectacular, in my opinion, though Wonder Woman was probably the best-received film to-date. Hopefully DC can figure out their issues and build something great, something that the fans can fully love and embrace. We’ve waited long enough to see these heroes be portrayed in a way that is both faithful and entertaining.
The debate over which of these two studios is doing a better job is not the topic of discussion here. Though I thoroughly enjoy most of the MCU, I have plenty of issues with some of their films that I won’t get into here. Feel free to spout out your “fanboy favoritism” in the comments, but know that I want all of these properties to be good and do well.
With all of these examples being laid out, let’s finally get into the topic at hand. What’s the deal with these cinematic universes? How is it that fans have gotten exactly what they’ve wanted for so long, only to start complaining about it? We’re getting huge tent pole teamup films, yet people complain that “not everything has to be connected” or “why can’t we just have standalone films? or “why didn’t this guy show up to help the other guy in that movie?”
Honestly, I’m not sure what people want. When we get Matt Reeves‘ standalone Batman, according to him now, it will be purely a Batman film with no inclusion of the other DC heroes. That’s fine, I have no problem with that. There’s nothing wrong with doing standalone films within a larger universe. Not every hero has to cameo in each other’s films. As long as there is connective tissue bringing them together in subtle ways without beating audiences over the head, I don’t see an issue.
In my opinion, I’m a fan of these cinematic universes and crossovers. I feel it adds gravitas and flavor to these films in a way that keeps me coming back for more. It’s certainly a challenge for these directors and bigwigs to paint such a large picture years in advance, which ultimately leads to plot holes and inconsistencies, which is understandable. I believe a level of caution needs to be exercised before announcing a slate of film years in advance, as there are so many moving parts.
Now I want to hear from you. Where do you stand on cinematic universes? Are they a good thing? What are some of your favorite ones? What films or characters would you like to see be crossed over into something new? Leave your thoughts in the comments section!